June 25, 2020

The Evolution of the India-China Boundary Dispute

The following article originally appeared in The Washington Examiner under the headline "India and China Peace Pacts Are Disintegrating" on June 25, 2020. 

On June 16, reports trickled in from the remote mountainous region of Ladakh that Indian soldiers had died in violence the previous night along the disputed border with China. Many details are still uncertain, with the Indian and Chinese governments trading blame for the incident, but what is clear is that a fight broke out between Indian and Chinese troops in the isolated Galwan River Valley. It resulted in 20 Indian Army deaths, including that of a senior officer, along with dozens of injuries, some inflicted using sticks covered in nails or barbed wire. China’s People’s Liberation Army also suffered casualties, although the Chinese government has not released the number and names of those killed.

The victims represent the first violent deaths on the India-China border since 1975 and the most fatalities at that location since 1967.

The Galwan River clash also marks a significant turn in relations between India and China — and that, in turn, will have long-lasting implications for the rest of the world.

It’s worth briefly reviewing what that relationship is, exactly, and how it got that way. Although China and India both consider themselves ancient civilization-states, historical contacts between them were limited yet important — premodern trade, plus religious and cultural exchanges, notably the spread of Buddhism from its birthplace in India to China.

Political relations were shaped by the colonial period, when India became part of the British Empire and China experienced intervention and subjugation by a number of imperial powers. The British recognized Chinese suzerainty (but not sovereignty) over Tibet, partly to preempt the possibility of encroachment by the Russian Empire. A number of border agreements were concluded in this period between British India and the Qing dynasty, although they were often vague, incomplete, or subsequently contested.

The Communist Revolution of 1949 and the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Liberation Army in 1950, coming shortly after Indian independence in 1947, meant that for the first time, China and India were immediate neighbors. India was initially quick to establish diplomatic relations with the communist government in Beijing, and the two cooperated to establish an anti-colonial consensus among Asian and African countries. But it soon became apparent that there would be trouble on the border.

The term “border dispute” tends to evoke images of a limited standoff, but the India-China row is over territory larger than the state of Pennsylvania. It consists of three distinct sectors. Disputes in the middle sector are relatively small and include grazing grounds and passes that link India with Tibet. The eastern sector includes China’s claim to almost the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, home to more people than Montana, which China calls “South Tibet.” That section includes the town of Tawang, birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, and thus has particular significance for Tibetans, and by extension, for Chinese claims to Tibet.

The western sector is in the Indian union territory of Ladakh, which was, until last year, part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Here, the borders with Tibet were never clearly demarcated. This land resembles a high-altitude desert: impossibly rough terrain with steep ravines, glaciers, and peaks rising to over 20,000 feet. In the virtually treeless landscape, landslides and dust storms are frequent, and the altitude makes it difficult to breathe without proper acclimatization.

Nonetheless, this territory is strategically important for both China and India. China constructed a vital highway through an area claimed by India in the 1950s to connect the restive regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. Ladakh is important for India not only for its own sake, but for supplying Indian forces along the disputed Line of Control with Pakistan, meaning this area is considered crucial to Indian security and to the geopolitical balance of power across a large part of Asia.

In some ways, this faceoff is a long time coming. In the 1950s, a series of developments led to an escalation of tensions on the border. One was India’s realization that China was moving the goalposts and making more aggressive territorial claims. The status of Tibet was an added complication: In the 1950s, a revolt in eastern Tibet against communist China resulted in a brutal crackdown by Chinese forces, during which the Dalai Lama and some of his followers fled to India. Amid the catastrophe of Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” and inadequate Indian military preparation, a short but sharp border war broke out in late 1962. China decisively won, advancing over some territory in the western sector. In the east, China inflicted a humiliating defeat but withdrew before the onset of winter, believing it had taught India a lesson.

India-China relations remained strained for another 15 years. Violent skirmishes erupted in 1967 in Sikkim in the eastern sector. Negotiations eventually restarted following the resumption of full diplomatic relations, and for a brief period in the early 1980s, Beijing floated the possibility of resolving the boundary once and for all. That changed abruptly in 1985, when China once again made aggressive claims, a policy that has continued. Despite another standoff in the eastern sector in 1986-87, steps toward normalization began after 1988.

Then, in a series of unusual agreements between 1993 and 2013, the two maintained a peaceful posture on the disputed border. This opened pathways to cooperation on other matters, including trade. The two sides agreed that if Indian and Chinese patrols came into face-to-face contact, they would “exercise self-restraint,” not “threaten to use force,” and “enter into immediate consultations” to resolve the problem. In practice, this resulted in both Indian and Chinese military units patrolling some of the same ground, where their claims overlapped. Despite frequent run-ins between their patrols, there was rarely violence and never any that resulted in serious injury, let alone death.

But this period also saw the beginnings of a new kind of arms race as both sides attempted to improve infrastructure — roads, bridges, and airfields — near the Line of Actual Control, the vaguely defined, de facto boundary. China moved first and more quickly, driven by a combination of political will, more favorable terrain, and, eventually, greater resources. But India soon started to catch up. The run-ins between patrols became more frequent.

In 2013, the first major standoff between India and China in 26 years occurred on the remote Depsang Plains when China attempted to establish a permanent presence in disputed territory just as India prepared to open a high-altitude airfield at nearby Daulat Beg Oldi. This was resolved when India threatened to cancel the visit of the Chinese premier. But in 2014, as Chinese President Xi Jinping was in India, another flare-up occurred in Chumar, farther south. A more significant standoff occurred in 2017, involving China’s territorial dispute with Bhutan, an Indian ally. Indian forces intervened to stop Chinese road-building in disputed territory, resulting in a brief spike in tensions.

Earlier this year, as a critical Indian road to Daulat Beg Oldi came closer to completion, Chinese forces deployed in larger numbers at the LAC, and as Indian troops matched them, standoffs occurred at four points. One was the Galwan River Valley, an area that had witnessed fighting in 1962 but had not been a major source of friction since. To the south, by a picturesque lake called Pangong Tso, Chinese and Indian forces entered into a tussle in May. In between, near an area known as Hot Springs, two smaller buildups took place.

On June 6, senior military commanders from India and China met and agreed to a road map for phased disengagement by both militaries at the Galwan River and Hot Springs. It was as this disengagement was taking place that violence erupted on the night of June 15. The Indian government accuses China of not having adhered to the disengagement road map, while China claims Indian forces crossed the LAC.

The melee in the Galwan River Valley has a number of clear consequences. The first is that China has embarked upon a massive military buildup far out of proportion to any real military threat. While observers can speculate about Chinese motives, the intimidatory nature of its actions is evident. The second is that the clash calls into question protocols that had been carefully established between the two governments since 1993. Resuscitating any level of trust on the border will now be difficult since existing agreements proved unable to prevent deadly conflict. The third is that Indian public opinion toward China has become markedly more hostile, something China has sought to avoid in the past.

But the friction also has implications for the wider world, including the United States. They bring into focus similar concerns that India, the U.S., and others — including Japan, Australia, Taiwan, and allies in Southeast Asia — have when it comes to China’s growing assertiveness. Accelerated efforts by India and the U.S. to share intelligence and assessments, improve military cooperation, and build up defense capabilities would be a natural consequence.

Since 2005, New Delhi and Washington have concluded a defense framework agreement, a civilian nuclear deal, and military agreements on logistics, secure communications, and industrial security. U.S. secretaries of state and defense often hold regular strategic dialogues (called “2+2”) with their Indian counterparts. The American and Indian armies, air forces, and navies conduct regular exercises, including a new triservice amphibious exercise. India has also acquired seven major weapons platforms, including reconnaissance and transport aircraft, attack helicopters, and artillery, from the U.S. Such tangible forms of security cooperation may now intensify.

But despite healthy cooperation on security matters, Washington and New Delhi have sparred on other issues. India-China competition over the medium-term future will not be restricted to military affairs. Should Washington reach agreements with India on matters such as trade, investment, and immigration, it would go a long way toward preserving a favorable balance of power in Asia amid China’s continued assertiveness.